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Jun 11 / King Kaufman

Fact-checking trumps even the most reliable media sources

One of the trickiest aspects of verifying the accuracy of online information is that some of the best tools at our disposal are hardly foolproof. An incident in the tech media world last week illustrated that beautifully.

Two of the best verification methods we use and teach at Bleacher Report are spelled out in a B/R Blog post written by Director of Quality Control Dan Bonato in 2011, Verifying sources: A primer and checklist. Note that on this checklist, “source” refers to the person or outlet reporting a piece of information:

“Consider the social history of the source.”

  • Does the source have a history of reporting credible news, such as the New York Times, or a local outlet with beat writers? …
  • Does it have a history of presenting information in a straightforward, objective manner? Is it known for being biased? If the latter, does that bias influence the report? …
  • Are its reporters respected as authorities on the sport/team/player/etc. in question?

“Seek social corroboration.”

  • Are other reputable media outlets running with the news, either from your source or otherwise? If so, are they presenting it as fact, rumor or speculation?

In the sports world, the cases of Tia Norfleet and, especially, Manti Te’o's nonexistent girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, have reminded us that even those with sterling reputations sometimes report things that aren’t true, and things that aren’t true sometimes get reported widely by usually credible media outlets.

That last part is particularly dangerous. If a usually reliable media outlet reporting something is an indication that the information is good, then it only takes one usually reliable media outlet to make a mistake. Others, citing that usually reliable outlet, will pile on, and before you know it, the false report becomes accepted fact. Look: Everybody’s got it!

That happened last week in the tech media, when venture capitalist and tech guru Mary Meeker gave her annual Internet Trends Report at a conference sponsored by the tech news site AllThingsD.

One factoid from her report—the average user looks at their smartphone 150 times a day—was picked up widely, despite the fact that, according to Jeff Elder of, it wasn’t true:

But there was never any solid data to back it up. The numbers cited in the presentation were taken from opinions posted on a blog. And the blog post wasn’t even discussing smartphones, but non-smartphones …

The misinformation has now appeared in news stories, hundreds of tweets and on thousands of blogs. It helped Meeker make her case on one of technology’s biggest stages for a whole new realm of tech, “wearables” like Google Glass. But that case was not made with facts.

There were so many problems with the slide that Meeker’s team, since being questioned about it by The Chronicle, has changed its headline and its sourcing.

Meeker is the usually reliable source in this case, and when a bunch of other usually reliable media outlets repeated her factoid, it became accepted fact.

Until, that is, Elder fact-checked it.

I don’t know enough about smartphone usage to know if Meeker’s statement passes the sniff test. But I do know that what Elder did, chasing down the truth rather than just relying on the statement of a usually reliable source, is the best method of verification we’ve got.